Let's talk: A purposeful plan when delivering 'bad news' on employment
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Planning for a notification day about an employee termination event is not your typical corporate event nor a business-as-usual process. For an employer who sees their employees as their most valued asset, it means providing their people with utmost care and preferential attention to detail. Having more than a decade of experience in dealing with companies across industries who prepared rigorously for this day, my main aim is to suggest ways that lay the basic foundation for when it comes down to letting go of employees: we deal with humans—therefore, strive to achieve of actually ‘being human’ to counter off this profoundly unkind life event.
A person who delivers this bad news of employment cessation is referred to as the notifier. He or she is someone who has the formidable task of sending out the employment separation. Often, notifiers have these enduring and frightful questions in mind when faced with employee termination: How do I send the message successfully? How do I handle the reaction of my staff and my emotional well-being if things did not go according to plan? Hence, I intend to address the readiness of employers to be more equipped in handling the most sensitive task of employee separation as an impact of organizational change.
Before the Notification Day: Communication Plans
It is always a dreadful experience for any notifier to convey bad news to any impacted employee if communication strategies are left to a matter of chance. Setting the stage to cascade the avowed purpose of becoming transparent as part of the ‘communication plan’ of the management can surely help ease the impact of unwelcome change. The sooner the idea of manpower reduction will be communicated, the higher chance the employees will become prepared at least—mentally and emotionally.
This communication plan can start with an assembly in a town hall gathering that ensures everyone attends. Get everybody updated on what is the latest development by explaining the big picture of the business's current direction. Be transparent about what the company has gone through (or will go through) in terms of business development. Create a timeline of how this new business direction will affect operations and eventually affect certain job positions. This will allow employees to digest the impact of changes internally and raise some questions they may have. At this point then, the management team should be prepared to answer queries that may come out as a whole barrage of questions relating to varying concerns. These are usually about: selection criteria, a possible internal application within the company, tenure issues, reporting relationships, issues related to turnover tasks, and separation packages, and other personal concerns.
In the communication plan, some jargon and terminology should be used consistently throughout the process as this can also impact a successful termination notice. As a psychological impact, terms such as ‘termination’, ‘retrenchment’, ‘laid off’, and the newer term ‘redundiated’ can be quite labeling and stigmatizing. Therefore, this should also be handled with profound care and sparingly throughout conversations and written communications.
A written script ultimately guides notifiers to carry on the conversation. It contains the main message aligned with the business decision explaining why it led to manpower reduction. This piece of paper is crucial to the effective communication flow which determines the employee’s reactions (behaviors). It is best to head start by explaining the business rationale for the decision. For example:
“The reason for our meeting today is to provide you with detailed information about the decision of the Company to undergo organizational changes as communicated in the earlier town hall meeting. This business decision is based on the following considerations...”
Then, a clear definition of separate terms and exit date.
“New changes in the business model of our current global structure as mentioned earlier will affect the structure of each department and thereby will undergo restructuring. Unfortunately, it has been decided that your position has been made redundant 30 days effective from receipt of this formal notification with the last day of employment on xxxxx (date here).”
End by thanking the employee and consider providing an employee assistance program with a focus on mental health services and/or career coaching that prepares employees to get equipped with the right tools to develop a mindset on achieving a successful career transition. There are external providers who are experts in these fields and are highly trained to address this need.
“An employee assistance program is also made available for you should you need further emotional support and assistance in processing this separation information. Thank you for your valuable contribution to the Company. The management appreciates your relentless commitment and dedication throughout your employment with us. We wish you all the best.”
Whatever the direction of your exchanges, it is important to bring the conversation back to recognize the contribution of the employee because we focus on the fact that the reduction was due to the relevance of the position. Likewise, as a notifier, you need to increase your awareness of the employee’s concerns and other personal circumstances e.g. a planned wedding or expecting a baby. Be vigilant of any possible distressing reactions of the employee.
Below are some key features of distressful workers who received a notice of termination:
Physical symptoms - tearful, cold sweat, shaking, sudden or recurring headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, apparent aches and pains
Emotional symptoms - may manifest one or more of the following reactions:
Disoriented –spacing out, not being immediately aware of where one is and what she/he is talking or hearing about
Not responding, withdrawn
Anxious for economic means and career
Having fear of the unknown; A sense of loss of identity
Feeling of loss such as grief, and sadness
Guilt, shame (for having survived, or for not saving others)
Angry, high irritability
Confused, feeling unreal, or in a daze
Embarrassed and/or ashamed of being viewed as a failure
Feeling betrayed and/or injustice was done
Actual Day of Notification: Delivery Options
An offsite venue outside the office premise always has its inherent advantage. This means conducting the separation meeting in a function room of a hotel or a private function room of a restaurant. Likewise, there is a science behind these table-and-chair arrangements that either make or break the communication flow thereby affecting the effective delivery.
A one-on-one delivery is highly suggested to provide privacy and a psychologically safe space for varying reactions (good or bad). Ultimately, employees must feel valued despite the preponderance of the separation intent. Below are some of the considerations when preparing for offsite notification:
Side-by-side positioning (notifier vs. affected employee
Notifier near the exit door
Affected employee facing the blank wall (or less distracting scenery)
Provide water, candies, and tissues on the table
Fewer office accessories
No sound distractions and noise
A personal space for sensitive conversation would ease the tension of the message. Open spaces, compromises privacy, this is a critical part of effective communication during this eventful day of notification. If we say, we are striving to achieve the highest level of human characterization, then we start with eliminating the extraneous variables that are impeding our humanness by allowing personal space.
Logistically, securing a training or function room is sufficient. At this point, timing becomes everything so do consider scheduling a start during the usual business hour typically in the morning schedule. HR may need to secure a good communication traffic especially when a large number of affected employees to be notified. I have been to various kinds of onsite venues of clients’ office buildings, the variety of these setups was the use of a training or meeting room, board room, office cubicle, and a training center (usually a different location).
Notifiers who are in a ‘home court’ atmosphere are more in control of the event. But keep in mind, they may need to have a higher level of frustration tolerance and sensitivity when it comes to reading and become well-equipped when addressing unexpected emotions and behavioral responses.
In doing virtual conversations, we become emotionally detached. Being ‘online’ means we remove all other non-linguistic elements of communication. According to Dr. Jean Segal and colleagues (2020) on HelpGuide.org (a nonprofit organization mental health website) who discussed a topic on communication, referred to these non-linguistic elements as nonverbal communication or simply as “body language". Dr. Segal stressed that “body language is the use of physical behavior, expressions, and mannerisms to communicate nonverbally, often done instinctively rather than consciously”. These cues speak the loudest in our conversations.
When going virtual, means being fully reliant on the technological medium of communication and the performance signal of its network connectivity. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate the quality of speed and availability of connection on the employees’ end. Additionally, if and when the employee is in the comfort of their home, be able to request a private moment, free of distractions from the household members as much as possible
A great piece of advice on trying to be ‘human’, when delivering messages through virtual means, is to look at the camera as frequently as possible. Whatever type of camera you are using whether from your laptop or separately placed within your spot, you need to be consciously looking at the small black round dot as because you are trying your very best to establish good eye contact during the delivery of our message while expressing an emphatic understanding. A good amount of practice can help you get prepared.
After the Notification Day: Debrief and Recovery
As you reach the end of the notification process, it is worthwhile to reflect and evaluate what went right and wrong throughout the process. A debriefing among notifiers who have gone through the “heavy lifting” of the notification process must be given not just due credit, but some form of professional support. You can engage an external facilitator to provide formal discussions to enable your notifiers to desensitize and recoup from their depleted energies. Moreover, giving them a good amount of time off for a day or two can surely bring them back to a good state of recovery. Contracting other mental health care providers to attend to ‘red flags’ of unusual reactions is also highly recommended. These red flags are self-harming behaviors such as intrusive thoughts of hurting oneself.
As a career coach and mental health provider, I came to realize that employees who have served well in the company and have been supported up to their very last day of work, are the ones who moved on successfully with truly lifelong cherished memories. This post-employment experience sends a clear message of how employees are truly valued and appreciated. This transition support not only favors the employee’s welfare and well-being but likewise, increases the employer’s brand by creating an outstanding reputation of attracting and retaining talents in the industry by exercising values-driven strategies of putting people first.
The reality is, we have an interminable changing work environment. As M.J. Ryan, in his book How to Survive Change, You Did Not Ask For aptly said: “What’s happening right now to most of us is not because we’re bad or wrong or incompetent. It’s because the world is transforming at breakneck speed and each one of us must adapt to those changes as quickly and efficiently as possible.” It is in your best interest as an employer to bring your employees to the highest level of care and support not only during a business-as-usual state of condition but more so during a crisis-driven situation. After all, it is the human that made all the value and therefore should be your most significant capital in the organization.
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